Wednesday, February 25, 2015

White Privilege in Australian Buses. A Look At An Audit Study.


Ian Ayres' opinion column in the New York Times is about an audit study carried out in Australia.

I love audit studies, because they are a way to control for all the alternative explanations to pure discrimination in consumer and labor markets.  Here's why:

An audit study uses trained individuals to play the role of, say, a car buyer or a job seeker.  The trained individuals are all given the same rules about how to behave, what to ask for and how, how to negotiate and, when relevant, they are also provided resumes etc. of equal value.  The goal is to have these individuals differ in only the characteristic the study is interested in, such as race or gender or both.

If it turns out that the tester's chances of getting a job interview or a good price on a second-hand car indeed vary by race and/or gender, we have ruled out that something else caused the apparent correlation.  Well, we have ruled it out if the audit study was well designed.

The flaw in audit studies is that they cannot continue for years and years, which means that they cannot tell us much about how people are rewarded in their jobs, whether they are promoted purely on the basis of merit, say.  But they are pretty good for measuring potential gender and/or race discrimination against job seekers or car buyers or renters of apartments.


Monday, February 23, 2015

To Praise Saunas. Or Not?


A recent study from Finland suggests that saunas might have the ability to reduce mortality from heart disease:

A study from Finland found that men who use saunas frequently are less likely to die from heart disease. Men's risk was even lower when they visited saunas more often in a week, and when they spent longer periods of time in a sauna each session, the researchers reported.
The findings could cause cardiologists to reconsider commonly held concerns about exposing heart patients to the heat present in a sauna, said Dr. Paul Thompson, medical director of cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Conn., and a member of the American College of Cardiology Sports and Exercise Cardiology Council.
"As a cardiologist, I have discouraged patients from using a sauna, from concerns over heat putting demands on a person's cardiovascular system," Thompson said. "Maybe we shouldn't be so restrictive with our patients."

I'd be careful about changing the recommendations too soon.  That's because the role of saunas in Finland is very different from someone in the US suddenly beginning to steam themselves regularly.

Saunas are a weekly custom in Finland.  Almost every single Finn has been in sauna thousands of times by the onset of middle age (and the men in the study were aged between 42 and 60).  The effects might be quite different for someone with no experience in löyly-taking suddenly beginning hour-long sessions of sweating.

I have not read the original study, so I assume that it controls for the initial health status of the men and how much exercise they take in general.  If not, the correlation could be caused by those factors:  Healthier men exercise more and take more saunas, too, and often the sauna is enjoyed after rigorous exercise.  I'm also pretty sure that the Finnish guidelines have also warned heart patients to abstain from sauna.

Still, the findings are thought-provoking.

I love sauna!  Love it, love it, love it.  When I'm in Finland I take one every night, and I miss it here (a hot bath is not a substitute, though I tried).  Some of my fondest childhood memories are running out into the snow bank with my sister to make naked snow angels and then back into the heat of the sauna.

The after-effect does feel quite a bit like having just had a good workout.  A singing of the happy cells of the body, if you like.




Friday, February 20, 2015

Ban Them Books!








1.  In Mosul, Iraq, the Islamic State is burning books:

Residents say the extremists smashed the locks that had protected the biggest repository of learning in the northern Iraq town, and loaded around 2,000 books — including children's stories, poetry, philosophy and tomes on sports, health, culture and science — into six pickup trucks. They left only Islamic texts.
The rest?
"These books promote infidelity and call for disobeying Allah. So they will be burned," a bearded militant in traditional Afghani two-piece clothing told residents, according to one man living nearby who spoke to The Associated Press. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation, said the Islamic State group official made his impromptu address as others stuffed books into empty flour bags.

2.  In Denver, Colorado, a group of students walked out in protest because of this:

Hundreds of students walked out of classrooms around suburban Denver on Tuesday in protest over a conservative-led school board proposal to focus history education on topics that promote citizenship, patriotism and respect for authority, providing a show of civil disobedience that the new standards would aim to downplay.

3.  And in Oklahoma, Advanced Placement history courses are seen as fighting god and American exceptionalism:

Oklahoma Rep. Dan Fisher (R) has introduced “emergency” legislation “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” Fisher is part of a group called the “Black Robe Regiment” which argues “the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists.” The group attacks the “false wall of separation of church and state.” The Black Robe Regiment claims that a “growing tide of special interest groups indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective.”
Fisher said the Advanced Placement history class fails to teach “American exceptionalism.” The bill passed the Oklahoma House Education committee on Monday on a vote of 11-4. You can read the actual course description for the course here.
I don't aim to compare the Islamic State with American conservatives by putting these news in one list (they are certainly not the same or comparable in horrible violence), but to point out the shared string in the violin concertos: 

What is taught to children matters very much to certain political and religious groups.  Books are powerful!  Books may need to be banned or burned!  Education matters greatly as the Boko Haram (Western Education Is Forbidden) terrorist movement in Nigeria has noticed and as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan also knows.  And as Malala Yousafzai knows.  Hitler knew all about this, too:



Ignorance is a powerful weapon which makes education also a powerful weapon.  Hierarchical systems fear the idea of widespread democratic education, and they are correct in that fear.

I understand that our views of history or religion may clash, that utterly neutral information is impossible, even in school books.  But the approach to cure that problem is to let the different arguments duke it out when the children are old enough to follow debates of that sort.







On Altar Girls at the Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Francisco And Other Related Topics


I missed this January event in San Francisco.  A Catholic church there, the Star of the Sea,  decided to stop allowing girls to be altar servers.  Existing girls who are serving can continue but new ones will not be accepted.

Imagine how you would feel if you were one of those "mistake, oops" girls!  To allow them to continue doesn't patch up the rejection.

But it's all perfectly fine, because there are parents in the congregation who like the idea of boys-only (in a church of male-priests-only) and because the priest behind this "innovation," one Joseph Illo, argues that the change is great for male bonding and makes sense as being an altar server could be the first step to becoming a priest and -- duh -- girls cannot become priests ever.  The logic is beautiful and very clear and in my divine opinion backwards.

The same Joseph Illo raised a few feathers more recently:

The Rev. Joseph Illo recently banned the use of altar girls at school and parish Masses at Star of the Sea, a decision opposed by some parents and staff.
Illo also upset families when he decided that non-Catholic students could no longer receive blessings during Communion, a decision he reversed after complaints from the school community.
And this week, parents revealed that Star of the Sea students as young as those in second grade received a pamphlet about confession late last year that referred to sexual topics such as sodomy, masturbation and abortion.

That was a mistake, Illo said Wednesday.
“Among the 70 items for reflection, some were not age appropriate for schoolchildren,” Illo said in a statement. “We apologize for this oversight and removed the pamphlet as soon as this was brought to our attention by the school faculty in December.”

You want to know what those pamphlets contained?

They asked questions such as, “Did I perform impure acts by myself (masturbation) or with another (adultery, fornication and sodomy)?” and, “Did I practice artificial birth control or was I or my spouse prematurely sterilized (tubal ligation or vasectomy)?” as well as, “Have I had or advised anyone to have an abortion?”
Riley Brooks, an 11-year-old student at the school, explained how he and his sixth-grade classmates responded to the material: they were “really grossed out.” “There was something about masturbation,” Brooks told the Chronicle. “Pretty sure abortion was on there, but I can’t remember. And sodomy. I don’t know what that means.”

Put all that together and Illo, a presumably celibate man in power inside a church which assigns most power to celibate men,  comes across as someone who just may have a slight problem with women and women's sexuality.  The irony in that is more than I can quite absorb.  

And no, I don't really care what theological arguments could be used to support his views because the game in all three major Abrahamic religions* is rigged against gender equality, what with their roots in two-thousand-year old shepherding tribal communities.  The gender roles literalists find supported in the Bible and in the Koran are those that were deemed appropriate in such tribal settings by those who had the power to leave us their words and thoughts.

These backward steps are not unheard of (though Illo's church is currently the only one in the archdiocese of San Francisco which is not going to let girls mess up things any longer).  The Southern Baptists, for example,  decided to get rid of female pastors in 1980s, though a few individual churches may still have them.

These occasions of backwards-sliding need to be noted.  Otherwise we will see more of them.

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*In their most extremist forms, naturally. 





Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Lesser Cut of Meat Speaks Up


Do you like jokes?  Do you have a sense of humor?  Probably not if you are a feminazi who uses armpit hair to make nets into which innocent misogynists stray, all the while staying straight-faced and glum.

But South Carolina State Senator Thomas Corbin (Republican, of course), he's a guy with a sense of humor!   I may have to explain his humor to those of you who are humor-deficient.

Begin with the context:  South Carolina Senate has only one female Senator, Katrina Shealy.  The rest are guys.  Within that context, Sen. Corbin directs stomach-hurtingly funny jokes of these types at Sen. Shealy:

Indignant at Corbin’s rank sexism, Shealy asked him where he “got off” making such remarks.
“Well, you know God created man first,” a smirking Corbin replied.  “Then he took the rib out of man to make woman.  And you know, a rib is a lesser cut of meat.”
He's a funny guy.  He even apologized for his comments, in the most masterful of ways:

After The State reached out to him for comment, Corbin said he’d stop, even though he claimed Shealy also teased him for being overweight and balding. They were both elected to the state Senate in 2012. “If it bothers her, I’ll quit joking around with her,”
That's what is called a non-apology (bolds are mine).

Then go looking for the excuses for these jokes (in a professional context, mind you), and you will find several, beginning with this:

“He makes comments like that all the time to everybody – including Senator Shealy,” said one legislative aide who spoke to FITS.

Are comments like that insulting jokes or specific sexist comments about women?  Assume it's the former.  Then the excuse is that the guy is just a general asshole, not explicitly just a sexist asshole.  It happens to be the case that his assholiness takes the form of sexism when the target is a woman.  It takes other forms in other cases, right?

Suppose that is true.  There's still a difference making cracks about all women vs. individuals.

 The second excuse is that Sen. Shealy also made jokes about Sen. Corbin's looks:

After The State reached out to him for comment, Corbin said he’d stop, even though he claimed Shealy also teased him for being overweight and balding.
The third one is that everyone laughed and laughed and laughed:

“We were all joking and laughing,” Corbin told The State

There you have it.  It was friends making slightly nasty jokes about friends, having fun while doing it, and if you don't agree you are a humorless asshole yourself.

Humor IS tricky, of course.  What is acceptable between friends who know each other well is a different kind of teasing than what is acceptable in a public setting or between individuals who don't know each other well.  When a joke falls flat the common defenses are exactly those listed above:  You did it, too!  You thought it was funny!  We laughed!  Well, if you can't take humor I'll stop!

But you know what?  It's not stupid jokes which ultimately matter, even when they consist of punching down, even when they consist of pinning the joke on, say,  a history of women's subjugation and the stories we tell about it as something hilarious.   What matters is what the jokes tell about Sen. Corbin, his likelihood for representing the women of South Carolina with proper respect and honesty.  That's what matters.

Incidentally, the way to check the "you have no sense of humor" counterargument is to have a large reservoir of reverse sexist jokes.  Just make a few of those to someone like Sen. Corbin and then accuse him of being a humorless sourpuss when he doesn't laugh.  Which he will not.

 




Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Belated Valentine From Me


To all of you.  May you always have chocolate cake and moments of sheer happiness.

And may you never be snowed in for three weeks in a row as this area of the country is experiencing (chews on walls), may you always remain sharp thinkers with loving hearts.

Is that enough smooching for you?

If not, have a look at this needlepoint I didn't bid at Goodwill online auctions though I thought about it (click on it to make it bigger):







The needlepoint looks like a copy of a painting or an etching and has a definite Victorian flavor.  It could even be Victorian.  The man in the picture is carrying his bride against a background of fantastic nature.  His arms look too long, his legs are very very muscular, and his feet about three times as long as her little slippers.  The red cheeks on both of them are wonderful!

All that and the hairstyle and clothing of the man suggests something in the early Victorian period for the original which was used to create the needlepoint.

Then to the sociological commentary which is obligatory on this here blog:

Needlepoint was something which gained much popularity during the Victorian era, what with the renewed emphasis on separate spheres  for middle-class women and men and the myth of those women as the "angels of the house," responsible for the care of the stressed men once they returned home after a hard day's work. 

In reality more affluent women had suddenly a lot more time on their hands.  That was partly solved by the Victorian fad of excessive house decoration, the creation of little tablecloths for every surface, the working of anti-macassars* and so on.  Needlepoint was particularly popular because it adds up more rapidly than most types of embroideries and because of the inventions in textile dying which allowed a much greater scope for the color effects visible in the above piece than was the case earlier.

I have no idea if the artist creating this work lived in the Victorian era.  But that's the flavor the work gives me.  But mostly it's really fun in all sorts of odd ways.

It's fun to think how future generations will view our ways of depicting lovers and which sociological aspects (eg hairstyles, makeup, exaggerated body proportions) will draw their attention.

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*These can still be found in flea markets and yard sales.  I have quite a few!





Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Short Echidne Thoughts on the Business of Blogging


1.  You know all those times when you need to complete an action online by clicking either "continue/publish/next/agree" button or its opposite, which is usually "cancel" or "delete" or "back?"

Please, kind developers, standardize the relative locations and colors of those buttons.  For instance, always have the "cancel" button on the right or the left of the other button, preferably in red or some other eye-catching color.  Do that EVERYWHERE.

You can guess why this has gotten my goat.  Granted, to double-check the location of the two buttons doesn't take very much of my time, but when you add up all the time all the net users spend on that, well, we just might have figured out how to get to relative world peace with those days and years.

2.  Brand.  That's not the hot iron mark on cattle ears (poor things).  It's what I'm supposed to have for this blog.  Like a mission statement, it's part of the business speak invading all sorts of areas.  If you don't have a brand people don't know what they are going to get and your message is not strong. 

Here's where my dark side enters.  I will NOT do whatever I'm supposed to do.  I have no idea why but I was like that inside the egg.  So I struggle with myself about the necessity of having a brand and other similar topics (such as developing a Twitter presence!  like a ghostly specter in the distance, howling away?), and the more I struggle the more scattered my topics and the worse my writing.

It could be an inner demon.  I may need lice treatment against those!

3.  Content producer.  That's another red flag waved at my inner bull (why not an inner angry cow?).   It sounds like an industry selling beautiful gift wrap and bows and -- only as an afterthought -- something to stuff into the box.  It could be shredded newspaper as long as it gets lots of clicks which produce lots of advertising revenue.

I understand why all that happens.  But I'm not some fu**ing content producer.  If you don't get my ire, suppose that mothers and fathers were routinely called child producers.

All that is grumpy writing.  The real reason is that I have to go out there, and out there consists of snow, snow and more snow.  If you never hear from me again remember that I loved you.

How To Create Strong Female Characters in Books, Movies and Games


What makes a female character in writing or in films "strong?"  Is it the ability to kick butt?  Chuck Wendig notes that butt-kicking ability is neither necessary nor sufficient.  A character is  more than a pawn on a chess board only when she has agency, an inner landscape which is not completely outer directed, a role more significant than merely justifying why the male hero does whatever he will do in the story.
 
Many “strong female characters” feel like something ripped out of a video game. Or worse, they feel like toys — objects that look tough, hold guns, wield swords, have karate-chop arms, but are ultimately plastic, posable action figures. Empty and maneuverable, they go where you tell them to go because they’re just devices.
Alison Bechdel coined the Bechdel Test, which asks if the story (or an overall body of storytelling) features at least two women who talk about something other than a man.
Gail Simone talks about the “Women in Refrigerators” problem, where women and girls inside comic books are used as fodder — raped, killed, or otherwise excised of power through violence (and often to make a male character feel something). The only power these women have in the story is to be damaged enough to motivate the story or the male characters in it.
Kelly Sue DeConnick talks about the “Sexy Lamp” test, which says, if you can replace the woman in the story with a sexy lamp and it doesn’t affect the story outcome, well, fuck you, that’s what.

I liked that quote.  I have long used the beer-barrels-and-ham-hocks test* when reading the most misogynistic type of evolutionary psychology (which I call Evolutionary Psychology or EP, to distinguish it from the more sensible kind of scientific inquiry, ep). 

Just replace any reference to women or "females" in the article by beer barrels and ham-hocks, and if everything else stays consistent and nothing makes you start giggling, then women or "females" in that study are assumed to have had the same agency as barrels of beer on cuts of ham.

The linked post makes a wider point (or so I read it).  It's not that we need to have all female characters in art be "strong,"  just as we don't need to have all male characters be that way.  The same goes for being all good or all bad. 

Real people are complicated mixes of strengths and weaknesses, and the more one-dimensional we make them in stories the more we start leaning on simple myths:  The damaged but valiant hero with big muscles but not much brain, the bitter but ultimately good anti-hero, the endlessly sacrificing/admiring/caring wife or mother or girlfriend, the woman-as-mobile-tit-carrier and so on.

Those myths often offer women up in a particularly impoverishing ways. defined by their relationships to the hero of the story, the mother-girlfriend/wife-whore trinity.  That, in turn, means that just a handful of those roles is sufficient for most action stories, and that being a girlfriend becomes a role equivalent to being one of the seven guys with different jobs and personalities.  This is probably one of the reasons why there are more jobs for male than female actors.

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*Copyrighted here by me!



Monday, February 16, 2015

The Drip-Drip Theory of Getting Fitted Into Gender Roles


That may not be the real name of the theory which is about the completely hidden part of acculturation to gender roles, the part which is invisible.  Other parts can be extremely visible (such as direct gender discrimination, religious rules about sex roles or examples like this intersection of race and gender in the treatment of black girls in US schools), but even those who are not subject to the avalanches of openly gendered rules may have been subject to the drip-drip experiences.

This is the idea that we are all slowly, slowly being filed down to a shape that will fit the hole the society has deemed acceptable for us, from childhood onwards. Those drip-drips are tiny events, not necessarily important in themselves, but as water dripping ultimately hones down a stone into a smooth pebble a continuous "rain" on us can have significant effects on the shapes we will take.

As an example of this, consider this study from Israel:

Beginning in 2002, the researchers studied three groups of Israeli students from sixth grade through the end of high school. The students were given two exams, one graded by outsiders who did not know their identities and another by teachers who knew their names.
In math, the girls outscored the boys in the exam graded anonymously, but the boys outscored the girls when graded by teachers who knew their names. The effect was not the same for tests on other subjects, like English and Hebrew. The researchers concluded that in math and science, the teachers overestimated the boys’ abilities and underestimated the girls’, and that this had long-term effects on students’ attitudes toward the subjects.
For example, when the same students reached junior high and high school, the economists analyzed their performance on national exams. The boys who had been encouraged when they were younger performed significantly better.
They also tracked the advanced math and science courses that students chose to take in high school. After controlling for other factors that might affect their choices, they concluded that the girls who had been discouraged by their elementary schoolteachers were much less likely than the boys to take advanced courses.
It's possible that all the teachers did was anticipate future developments (though what works against that is the absence of the reverse bias in English or Hebrew, areas in which girls are expected to do better than boys).  I have not read the study itself to see how well the controlling of other factors worked.  But even if that is the case, the drip-drip theory is likely to tilt things further in the anticipated direction.

When you put that one drop into the pail gathering them at the root of your feet things start looking different.  By the time you reach maturity you have been filed and sanded and honed by hundreds of similar small events.  Some of them you will remember, most of them you have forgotten or never knew about.

It's crucial to point out that the people doing the honing or filing are almost always totally unaware of what they are doing.  Any one of us could be holding that file or sandpaper.  One observation study* of a Finnish daycare center  found that the caregivers paid more attention to boys than girls, helped boys first (in dressing, say, which is not necessarily good for boys) and expected more sharing and controlled behavior from girls than boys.  Dolls were assigned to girls first and cars to boys first.

When the caregivers involved in the study found out the results they were shocked.  All those drips were unconscious, created by the way the society had filed and honed them in the earlier rounds.

None of this is an argument for a hundred-percent environmental theory of gender roles.  But it is important to notice that the societal effects are often of the type discussed in this post and may be as invisible as gentle summer rain.

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*Link in Finnish, sorry




On Religion, Islamic Terrorism and Islamophobia


If groups such as ISIS/Daesh and alQaeda have any very long-term religious objectives those seem to resemble the end times ideology of extreme right-wing US Christians.  In the former case the equivalence may not be to end times but the end of all religions except a certain type of Islam.  That era will be preceded by a global war between Muslims and the various types of infidels, and Islam will win, which provides a warped type of incentive for both extreme Christians and terrorists to root for that final war and perhaps even aid its arrival. 

For ISIS "infidels" cover everyone who is not an extremist Salafi and/or Wahhabi type Sunni Muslim, preferably more extremist than what the Saudis have managed to achieve.

Here's the thing:  Those are by far the most extremist movements in Islam which have any wider support.  Most Muslims are not Salafis or Wahhabis and most Salafis or Wahhabis are not terrorists, either.

But the roots (the code-book, if you like) of the current Islamic terrorism is very much in those two movements. They both view the few centuries after Mohammad as demonstrating everything that is necessary for the correct Islamic way of life.  They are both based on literal interpretations of the Koran and other sources, with the assumption that the messages are literally correct and can never be re-interpreted for new times or practices.  They frown upon the idea of contact with non-Muslims and they are extremely strict and narrow in terms of the allowed spheres of life for women and inflexible in their demands of male custodianship of all women.

Wahhabism used to be limited to Saudi Arabia.  The outflow of money from that oil-rich country to the rest of the world has spread Wahhabism.  This is a purposeful strategy:

Wahhabi mission, or Dawah Wahhabiyya, is to spread purified Islam through the world, both Muslim and non-Muslim. [224] Tens of billions of dollars have been spent by the Saudi government and charities on mosques, schools, education materials, scholarships, throughout the world to promote Islam and the Wahhabi interpretation of it. Tens of thousands of volunteers[161] and several billion dollars also went in support of the jihad against the atheist communist regime governing Muslim Afghanistan.[162] 
Still, it's crucial to understand that the total number of Salafis or Wahhabis is very low when we count all the different Islamic sects in the world, and we should be extremely careful not to confuse terrorists with Salafis or Wahhabis in general and especially careful not to assume that every single Muslim is a terrorist.